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The Gaza I Grew Up In

Working as a photojournalist there is like walking barefoot in a field of thorns. You must always watch where you step.

Jehad al-Saftawi

Yassir Mahmoud El Haj holding a picture of his family, who, except for his sister, were all killed in a 2014 Israeli bombardment of their house in Khan Younis, Gaza, February 22, 2015

My name is Jehad al-Saftawi. I am a photographer and journalist. For years, I clung to the idea of fleeing my country for the Western world. There is no free press in Gaza. Most of the news channels cater to political parties that use violence to silence opposition. I come from a place overflowing with weapons, where my father could easily buy a pistol and shoot it into the air while cruising the streets of our city. A place where, on any night, you could be awoken by a bomb exploding in your neighbor’s home, stored there by a member of their family who belonged to an armed faction.

Working as a journalist in Gaza is like walking barefoot in a field of thorns. You must always watch where you step. Each neighborhood comprises its own intimate social network, and traveling through them with a camera makes you a significant cause for suspicion. You’re caught between the two sides of the conflict: the rulers of Gaza limit what you can photograph and write about, imprisoning and torturing those who disobey; at the same time, the Israeli army sees you as a potential threat that must be eliminated, as has been the fate of many Palestinian journalists. Standing behind the camera, my hands shook as I documented the suffering.

I am the second son of five children. Our father, Imad al-Saftawi, grew up in an ultraconservative middle-class family that was heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. As an adult, he spent many years participating in armed struggles, both within and outside the framework of Palestinian armed organizations, which he believed to be justifiable resistance to the Israeli occupation. As a member of one of the leading armed factions in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, he killed innocent Israelis.

I condemn these actions, though many in Gaza consider my father a hero, one who carried out valiant operations for the sake of his country and religion. In the late 1990s, when I was a young child, our father’s day job was with the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, which meant, in practical terms, he worked in the management of mosques. On top of his professional duties, he acted as the khateeb (orator) on Fridays in various mosques around the Gaza Strip, where he would lecture about religion. My mother was a housewife, overseeing our education and raising us according to our father’s methods and rules.

In 2000, when I was nine, our father was arrested by the Israeli army at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. He remained in prison for the next eighteen years. His influence over our family did not relent: from prison, he frequently telephoned our house and enforced religious and social strictures upon us, his children, threatening us in the event of noncompliance. Hadith (the Prophet’s quotes) lined our walls. Islamic books filled the shelves, along with animal statues my father had broken the heads off of in accordance with the Islamic rule prohibiting the portrayal and embodiment of spirits.

My siblings and I lived with my father’s family at the time, constantly feeling the weight of his reputation as a hero, and his community’s disapproval that we weren’t following his lead. Set free in December of 2018, Imad al-Saftawi has served as a brigadier general in Hamas’s Ministry of the Interior.

By then, however, I had succeeded in escaping. In 2016, when I was twenty-five, I managed to leave the Gaza Strip for New York, and, soon after, I began the process of seeking asylum in Berkeley, California. I’m now seven thousand miles away from him, from Gaza, and I walk as a free man.

The time I spent, and the conversations I had, with the subjects of my photographs are, for me, a lifetime burden and responsibility. Through my lens, and the events that I’ve witnessed, I have tried to show the human reality for people who were born into a situation with no option but to live it, people who have been all but abandoned and left to face alone the ramifications of others’ decisions and actions amid the intolerable deterioration of living conditions in Gaza. But I have tried also to show the glimpses of joy and hope as an alternative to the wretched paradigm of justice the political elite claims to be fighting for.


Jehad al-Saftawi

A Palestinian man working in one of the Rafah tunnels, which run from Gaza to Egypt and serve as underground routes for transporting goods and people, Gaza, November 24, 2012


Jehad al-Saftawi

A child biking past a door in Khuza’a, where hundreds of homes were destroyed in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Gaza, October 14, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

The minaret of the al-Soussi Masjid leaning into an apartment building in the Beach refugee camp, after the mosque was targeted by Israeli drone strikes, Gaza, August 22, 2014

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Jehad al-Saftawi

Children facing the challenge of getting to school through streets flooded by rainwater because of the broken sewerage system, Gaza City, November 14, 2013


Jehad al-Saftawi

Shuja’iyya residents venturing to the farthest point they could access in their neighborhood, where a few blocks away Israeli tanks were stationed, Gaza, July 26, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

Residents waiting in line to fill up their propane tanks, Gaza, November 21, 2013


Jehad al-Saftawi

Unexploded Israeli ordnance lying in a street of the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, Gaza, August 1, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

Nine-year-old Alaa Habib raising her hand in class at the Subhi Abu Karsh School, which was heavily damaged during Operation Protective Edge the year before, Gaza, August 31, 2015


Jehad al-Saftawi

Emad Saeed Sersawi, aged twenty, playing soccer in a bomb-damaged sports club in Shuja’iyya, Gaza, November 16, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

Mohammed Nuaija checking his nets before casting them into the sea, Gaza, April 4, 2016


Jehad al-Saftawi

Children sitting outside the bombed-out ruins of their home in Khuza’a, Gaza, September 30, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

A vehicle belonging to the Gaza-based press outlet Media 24 destroyed by a missile fired from an Israeli aircraft, killing its driver and injuring eight others nearby, Gaza, July 10, 2014


Jehad al-Saftawi

Fadi showing off some freshly harvested tomatoes on land adjacent to the militarized border buffer zone, Gaza, June 27, 2016


Jehad al-Saftawi

Seven-year-old Ahmed Salah al-Samouni in his classroom in the al-Zaytoun neighborhood, his face bearing the scars of an Israeli bombardment that killed several of his family members during Operation Cast Lead (2008–2009), Gaza, February 12, 2012


This photo-essay is adapted from the author’s book My Gaza: A City in Photographs, published by McSweeney’s.

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